At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

The Main Problem with Nolan’s Batman

posted by Jack Kerwick

Chalk up another summer for the genre of the superhero film.  The latest—and most anticipated—is the third and, supposedly, final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy: The Dark Knight Rises.

Being a committed superhero fan from way back, I admit to having something of an emotional interest invested in seeing to it that these cinematic adaptations of iconic comic book characters remain faithful to the traditional lore. 

It is this desire that accounts for why I despised all four chapters of the first Batman franchise just as much as I loved Nolan’s reimagining of the Dark Knight.

I remember seeing Tim Burton’s Batman on the night that it first opened back in the summer of 1989.  Michael Keaton portrayed the hero and Jack Nicholson his arch nemesis, the infamous “Joker.”  The movie was a phenomenal financial and critical success.


Though the best of the series that it spawned, I hated it.

And I hated it for a variety of reasons.

As of now, there are at least three things that I can recall vividly: Batman killed criminals without hesitation; among the criminals that he killed was “the Clown Prince of crime,” the Joker; and his unfailingly loyal butler, Alfred, took it upon himself to disclose his master’s duel identity to his love interest, Kim Basinger’s Vickie Vale.

For those of you who are in the least familiar with the history of Batman, I needn’t explain any further why a Batman fan would find all of this utterly unacceptable. Besides, inasmuch as it stands in glaring contrast to the 1990’s non-canonical depiction, Christopher Nolan’s conception of Gotham City’s caped crusader illuminates these inadequacies of its predecessor and more.


Bruce Wayne is a mega-billionaire whose parents were gunned down, before his very eyes, by a mugger when he was but a child.  The Waynes’ trusted butler raises him, supplying him with all of the love and emotional support that one would expect from a father.  Still, Bruce is forever traumatized by his parents’ slaying.  He is obsessed with it, and it is this obsession that all but compels him to devote all of his energies into transforming his whole person—mind and body—into the perfect weapon with which to combat evil.

Repeat: Batman is a hero, yes, but he is concerned first and foremost with fighting evil—not inspiring goodness. 

In Batman Begins, Nolan seems to get this.  It is in the first of the trilogy that Bruce Wayne resolves to become Batman so as to serve as a symbol—a symbol of fear: as Batman, he hopes to instill dread into the hearts of the lawless. 


Here, Nolan is consistent with the Batman mythos.  But by the time the most recent film comes to a close, he seems to have forgotten this, for it is here that Batman reveals that all along the idea behind the cape and cowl has been to inspire others to heroism.

Sorry, but this doesn’t wash.

Superman is a figure who is self-consciously committed to inspiring the good in others.  With his bright, flashy colors—and, crucially, bare face—he intends to be a symbol of hope, truth, and justice, a light in an otherwise dim world.  Thus, it is not for nothing that parallels between the Man of Steel and Jesus have been drawn for decades.

In other words, if Bruce Wayne sought to make others heroic through the symbol of The Batman, then he should not have chosen to dress as a creepy, nocturnal creature like a bat!


No, Batman may very well inspire goodness. And he may be pleased that he is able to do so. But this is not what he sets out to do.

He sets out to battle evil.  In fact, this may be too strong a characterization of his intentions, for Bruce Wayne’s decision to become Batman is just barely a choice.

He is driven to it.

Batman is a hero, but he is a tragic hero.  He doesn’t enjoy his life.  But he can’t have it any other way.  He refrains from killing his rivals, not because he has the least bit of compassion for them—he doesn’t—but because he is perpetually haunted by the fear that unless he draws that line for himself, he will become them.

Nolan brilliantly executes a happy ending for Batman. Yet this is a mistake, for in so doing, he fundamentally transforms the character into something that it isn’t.

We may as well arrange for Romeo and Juliet to go riding off into the sunset together.   







Reflections on the Paperback Edition of Ilana Mercer’s “Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa”

posted by Jack Kerwick

A while back, I reviewed Ilana Mercer’s, Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa.  Shortly afterwards, her and I began to correspond with one another.  On the eve of the release of the book’s paperback edition, its author graciously invited me to write its Afterword.  I was honored to do so. 

The classics of political philosophy are no different from those of any other genre inasmuch as they reflect, even if subtly, the relativities of time and place from which they sprang.  Highly theoretical works like Plato’s Republic, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, and John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, are no exceptions.

Still, while such works emerged from their progenitors’ preoccupations with the concrete political realities of their time, it would be a mistake of the first order to equate them with these concerns.  In other words, there isn’t a single contributor to the political-philosophical imagination of the Western mind who didn’t labor mightily to connect the particularities that initially arrested his attention to the universal. 


It is in this light that we must approach Ilana’s work.  That many of Cannibal’s reviewers appear to have come at it from a decidedly different vantage point makes it all the more imperative that we guard against making their error our own.

With an intimacy of which only a native is capable of supplying, Ilana escorts her reader through the history of her native homeland to the present day.  A place of which many of us have only heard, a place on a map, soon comes into crystal clear focus as reading about South Africa gives way to seeing it—or perhaps, more accurately, feeling it. That both its past fortunes and present sufferings should be recapitulated with an equally intense passion is, after all, what we should expect from a woman who characterizes her work as “a labor of love” to her homeland.


Lest its author’s intentions be misread, it should be stated unequivocally at the outset that Ilana was no friend of apartheid. Her commitment to the classical liberal tradition, a line of thought distinguished on account of its resounding affirmation of individuality, resolutely precludes sympathy with any set of institutional arrangements that are centered in race.  Still, facts are facts—however painful to reckon with they may be—and Ilana is nothing if not eminently capable of and just as willing to confront fact.

And the ugly fact is that whatever can be said of apartheid, by virtually every measure—especially rates of crime—the new South Africa is exponentially worse than the old.

Doubtless, stripped of all of the hideous details regarding the quality of life that serve to distinguish post-apartheid South Africa from its counterpart of yesteryear—astronomical rates of crime, corrupt and incompetent government, etc.—Cannibal loses its identity as the work that it is.  However, no less indispensable to its integrity, and probably even more so, are the larger theoretical, philosophical questions with which it wrestles.


Because life under the rule of the African National Congress has become unbearable for the residents of South Africa, Ilana left her home.  She left her family.  She left her friends.  The complex of institutions within which she was nurtured, that made her who she is, Ilana was compelled to leave behind. 

Change and permanence are the two themes with which the earliest Western philosophers were initially mesmerized.  They have influenced the course of Western philosophy ever since.  The same can be said for the themes of the universal and the particular, nature and culture.

Such sets of themes constitute the framework within which Cannibal unfolds.

Ilana’s book is, in a sense, an obituary. It is an obituary for her home, her country. For centuries, conservative theorists have been noted for nothing if not their resistance to radical change. Change, they knew, is inevitable. Yet, as the twentieth century philosopher Michael Oakeshott memorably remarked, it is also emblematic of death.  


Each and every change is a step toward non-being.  For this reason, it is to be approached cautiously, prudently: changes that are slight are preferable to those that are vast, changes that are necessary to those that are not, and changes that are gradual to those that are radical.  Changes that are “fundamentally transformative” siphon the life out of a society by severing its present from its past.

That is to say, every proposal for radical or fundamental change is a proposal for the destruction of one social order and the creation, ex nihilo, as it were, of a new one.  

Unlike most of us, Ilana knows this all too well, for the radical alterations that, like all radical changes, were hastily—and recklessly—imposed upon her homeland essentially destroyed it.  It is nothing less than her experience of the death of a loved one that Ilana relays to readers in Cannibal.  


However, while Cannibal is nothing less than this, it is indeed something more than this.

Ilana, you see, doesn’t just mourn the loss of South Africa; she dares to love once more.

Her new beloved is the United States, her new home.

But, as is the case with all lovers who have had to endure unimaginable suffering, Ilana is at great pains to insure that her new love is spared the same murderous folly that befell her old.  Thus far, though, things are not looking that promising for America on this score, for it is the pursuit of universal abstractions at the cost of neglecting concrete contingencies—an enterprise that consumes the entire Western world generally and the U.S.A. specifically—that imperiled South Africa in the ‘90’s and America today.


Universal ideals like “Democracy,” say, sound wonderful, but when attempts are made to implement them without any regard for the cultural complexities of those to whom they are applied; when timeless abstractions are spoken of as if they were written in human or rational nature rather than the hard won fruits of a civilization that has been centuries and millennia in the making, all manner of chaos is going to ensue.

This Ilana has seen in South Africa, and this is what she sees transpiring for America as it embarks upon a foreign policy that has as its objective “the fundamental transformation” of the Middle East (and beyond) into an oasis of Democracy.

Despite both my affection for this work as well as my admiration for the perceptiveness and courage of its author, this review would be remiss if I didn’t point out one major objection to which Cannibal is vulnerable.


Given her painful awareness of both the conflict that exists between the universal and abstract, on the one hand, and the particular and concrete, on the other, and her admonishment to avoid the pursuit of the former at the expense of the latter, it is more than a bit ironic that Ilana subscribes to the doctrine of “natural rights.” It is also more than a bit problematic that she does so.

The foreign policy that Ilana abhors is rooted in the abstraction of “Democracy,” as she contends, but it is rooted no less in the equally abstract concept of natural or human rights. Of course, a belief in natural rights doesn’t require that its holder support this kind of a foreign policy.  Yet this is one of its shortcomings: it is in principle compatible with all manner of policies—even those that strike us as being radically incompatible with one another. 


And this is but another way of saying that, like the worst of abstractions, it can mean all things to all people.

To Ilana’s credit, she readily concedes that this tension between the universal and the particular pervades Cannibal throughout.  In fairness, it is a healthy tension, for it provokes us to continue a discussion over the relationship between the two that even the best and brightest minds of the Western tradition have found impossible to avoid.  All great works of political and ethical thought, from Plato onward, have wrestled with this issue. 

To this long and illustrious collection we can now add Ilana Mercer’s Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa.



Mitt Romney and American Exceptionalism

posted by Jack Kerwick

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney just addressed the 113th gathering of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The former governor of Massachusetts endeavored mightily to draw a sharp contrast between himself and his rival, Barack Obama.

Establishing an inextricable link between the economy and national defense, Romney contended that the President’s poor handling of the former has been coupled with a weakening of the latter.

“The President’s policies have made it harder to recover from the deepest recession in seventy years,” Romney said. As a result, he has “exposed the military to cuts that no one can justify [.]” 

What is worst of all, according to Romney, is that Obama has “given trust where it is not earned, insult where it is not deserved, and apology where it is not due.”  Translation: Obama has not embraced the doctrine of “American Exceptionalism” (AE).


Of course, exactly what Obama or anyone else is expected to affirm—or deny—when they endorse AE is anything but axiomatic.  However, to listen carefully to its self-avowed champions—like Governor Romney himself—is to become at least a little clearer as to what AE is intended to signify.

Let us attend to Romney’s words.

For starters, Romney identifies himself as “an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country.” 

Ah. Taken alone, this remark is not only uncontroversial; it is virtually meaningless.  What could it mean to be “an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country?” Does such a person mean to deny that other countries are “great?”  What does it mean to say that any country is “great?”  Would Romney ever think to deny that Americans are susceptible to the same imperfections that have plagued the human race from time immemorial? 


It is only when we look at this comment within the context of Romney’s speech, though, that it begins to assume meaning.

Immediately following Romney’s self-identification as an unabashed defender of AE, he says:

“I am not ashamed of American power.  I take pride that throughout our history our power has brought justice where there was tyranny, peace where there was conflict, and hope where there was affliction and despair” [emphasis added].

Now we are getting somewhere.

You see, AE is the doctrine that Americashould seek to deploy its military forces—its power—to remake the world in its own image. It is the doctrine that America is and should always be “the leader of the free world.” 


If there are any doubts about this, Romney proceeds to dispel them. He is unequivocal:

“I do not view Americaas just one more point on the strategic map, one more power to be balanced. I believe our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known and that our influence is needed as much now as ever” [emphases added].

Romney claims that he is “guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century” [emphasis added].

Romney’s insinuations to the contrary notwithstanding, one who rejects the doctrine of AE need not, like our beloved President, regard America as a nation in need of redemption.  In other words, the only other alternative to the notion that America is uniquely great is not the idea that she is uniquely wicked.


There are plenty of us—most of us, I suspect—who will readily acknowledge the greatness of our country while just as readily rejecting Romney’s concept of AE.  The reason for this should be clear enough: we look upon our country in terms, not of “the power” of our government, but the goodness of its people and its institutions.

Republicans and other proponents of AE seem to either forget or ignore the fact that the United States military is a part of the United States—i.e. the federal—government.  Hence, demands for an ever larger military—a military with the capability to “fundamentally transform” the planet into a bastion of “justice,” “peace,” and “hope,” as Romney says in his speech—are nothing more or less than demands for a national government more expansive and powerful than any that the world has ever seen.


The logic of this reasoning is inescapable: the bigger the military, the bigger the government.

What this in turn means is that calls for “limited government” are incompatible—radically incompatible—with calls for a military of the sort for which the advocates of AE wish.

There is another consideration against AE.

Some of us reject AE precisely because we love our country so.

The interminable enterprise of deploying American military personnel to lands around the globe to imperil their lives for the ostensible well being of nonAmericans is neither virtuous nor, at least in spirit, constitutional.  Think about this for a moment: American public servants confiscate the hard earned resources of American taxpayers so that they can send American soldiers to fight and die for non-Americans.

This is what the doctrine of American Exceptionalism entails.  This is supposed to arouse our enthusiasm and fuel our most patriotic of feelings.

No thanks.  






Why Would Anyone Choose This Batman Film to Murder?

posted by Jack Kerwick

As I write this, the news is a buzz with the massacre that occurred in Colorado during the midnight opening show of The Dark Knight Rises—the third and (allegedly) final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.

Reportedly, approximately twenty minutes into the film, a man who, donned as he was with a gas mask, was eerily reminiscent of the film’s arch villain, entered the theatre and began to wreak unimaginable havoc with explosives and a gun.

When it was all said and done, twelve innocent people had been murdered and dozens more injured.

Already, just hours after this chaos erupted, “experts” of one sort or the other were making their rounds on the television circuit offering their insights into how and why the mass murderer did what he did.  The usual suspects on the political left wasted not a second to exploit this horror to advance their agenda of erasing out ofAmerica’s DNA the Second Amendment as well as to discredit the Tea Party. 


Now, I don’t proclaim to be an expert on anything, much less psychology. And, frankly, I don’t care in the least to know the causes that may or may not have lurked in the deep, dark recesses of this killer’s psyche. For that matter, I don’t even care to know the reasons that he may give for his actions.

I am, however, interested in supplying an account of why anyone may think to unleash an orgy of violence at the opening of this film.

Anyone who pays any attention to contemporary politics knows that this movie has assumed some measure of political significance this past week as some, like Rush Limbaugh, have contended that inasmuch as the main villain is named Bane, it is an instrument that President Obama and his supporters will use to further demonize Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney—i.e. former director of Bain Capital.


Rush is mistaken.

First, it isn’t just that Bane is a fiend with whom Batman has had to contend for nearly twenty years; Bane is arguably the most fearsome of such fiends. Though he hasn’t been around for nearly as long as some other villains have been, Bane is the one—and only—evil doer in Batman’s universe that can claim credit for having forced the Dark Knight into sabbatical when the former broke the latter’s back. 

That is to say, he is an especially distinguished bad guy. 

Second, most of the stock of Batman villains, unfortunately, simply would not have been a good fit with the darker and more somber tone of Nolan’s reboot of the Dark Knight.  The last franchise of the ‘90’s could afford to have its Batman battle “the Riddler,” “Mr. Freeze,” “The Penguin,” etc.  Not this Batman. Bane is the perfect choice for the climactic finale of this series.


There is yet another reason why Rush is wrong about his assessment of the political significance of this film.

Other Republicans have retorted that, if anything, The Dark Knight Rises can be read as legitimizing—not demonizing—Romney.  After all, the reasoning went, insofar as Batman’s alter ego is multi-billionaire Bruce Wayne, it is the hero, not the villain, who is not all that different, in this respect, from Romney.  Rush read these remarks on the air but, apparently, remained unconvinced.

This line of reasoning misses the point.  What is crucial to recognize is not which politician may or may not be portrayed in the characters of the villains and heroes. Rather, as far as understanding why someone would choose the occasion of the grand opening of this particular film to go on a killing spree, we should bear in mind that Bane represents, and is intended to represent, “the 99 percent.” 


More accurately, Bane is symbolic of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  He gives expression to the rage that ostensibly motivated the “occupiers” as well as the destruction to which the logic of that rage can all too easily lead.

This is why the film cannot credibly be used to the advantage of Obama and his ilk.

It was during the OWS demonstrations, recall, that the class envy rhetoric of “the one percent” and “the 99 percent” reached a fever pitch and become the stuff of bumper sticker slogans.  It was during these events that violence in the form of physical confrontations with police and blatant violations of private property were on full display.

May not this killer in Colorado who, like Bane, unleashed terror upon crowds of innocents, had been influenced by the constant barrage of class envy rhetoric with which this President and his party constantly bombard us?  Is it possible that he believes, as do “the occupiers” of Wall Street and cities throughout the country—and, of course, President Obama himself—that “the one percent” is exploitative, oppressive, greedy, and, thus, deserving of harsh treatment?


Is this hypothesis of mine all that hard to buy?

A correspondent of mine remarked that in writing this, I render myself vulnerable to “politicizing” this tragedy.  An otherwise reasonably intelligent individual, not unlike most of us, he has fallen into the trap of speaking nonsense just because it has become enshrined as the conventional wisdom.

In other words, he is guilty of sloppy thinking—or, rather, refusing to think.

There is nothing in the least bit illegitimate or morally dubious about the enterprise of exploring local events—particularly exceptional events, like this shooting—against a larger—i.e. less local—political or cultural backdrop.  This is a matter of striving to avoid missing the proverbial forest for the trees.  It is the mark of an inquisitive mind, a mind aching for understanding and, hence, some measure of consolation, to search for a framework or “bigger picture” within which to situate an apparently anomalous phenomenon.


The typical—and all too predictable—left-wing framework of “gun control” isn’t objectionable because it is “political;” it is objectionable because it is stupid: criminals like this mass murderer, terrorist in Colorado are not going to be deterred by even more restrictions on the Second Amendment.  If we weren’t already so habituated to hearing this line about so-called “gun control” and if we didn’t know that so many seemingly otherwise intelligent people subscribe to it, we would be shocked to learn that anyone with an IQ over two could possibly believe this drivel.

What does it mean to “politicize” anything?  Is there something intrinsically unseemly about political life?  Is it is more noble, more in keeping with good taste, to talk about events of the sort under discussion in the light of “culture” rather than politics?  If so, why is it so?  Is there a hard and fast distinction between culture and politics and, if so, in what does that distinction consist? 

Thinking people will address questions of this kind before rule out of hand that it is immoral to “politicize” tragedies.        

*This article was published at The New American.  Some of it was changed by the editor.  This is the original–and uncensored–version. 



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